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Five habits for better project meetings in 2021

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It’s been almost 12 months since project meetings became primarily virtual. It’s unimaginable to think of the additional chaos businesses would have faced had the technology not existed to allow us to interact remotely. But that doesn’t mean online meetings have been easy.

At times, they’ve tested our patience, resilience and sapped us of our mental energy. But whether project professionals like or loathe meeting virtually, it’s a feature of working life that’s likely to become permanent even beyond the pandemic.

So, one year into the ‘new normal’, now is the ideal time to step back and review how remote project meetings are conducted to see how we can sharpen best practice and boost efficiency.

First off, whether face-to-face or online, the basic rules of running a tight and productive meeting apply. These should be familiar: circulate your agenda ahead of the event, only call a meeting if there is a clear purpose, limit the number of participants, start punctually and send out summaries afterwards.

For remote meetings, there are additional factors to bear in mind. Here are five habits to help project professionals ensure meetings hit their objectives.

1. Head off technological interruptions

Spending the first 10 minutes of a meeting trying to connect or help a colleague turn their camera on is exasperating and can kill energy levels before the meeting has even begun. Remind all participants to test the technology ahead of the meeting, be familiar with the main features (microphone, video, etc), have devices fully charged and be positioned in a strong Wi-Fi area. A pre-meeting tech checklist could be sent out with the agenda.

2. Enhance the human connection

One of the biggest constraints of virtual meetings is the absence of that key communication tool, body language. In a face-to-face meeting you can physically see everyone and their hand gestures, eye movements and facial expressions. Without this, it can be tricky to accurately judge people’s reactions and read how the meeting is going. In turn, this could mean you miss subtle prompts warning you of a need to take action, whether that’s raising engagement levels or responding to a less-than-impressed stakeholder or client.

The body language issue can be a particular barrier in global meetings where overcoming cultural differences relies on being able to read non-verbal cues.

As a general rule, all participants should be asked to have their video cameras on during a meeting. To inject more of a human touch, attendees should aim to have their hands visible in the screen frame so others can see their gestures and get the full effect of what they are trying to say, which can increase engagement and energy and make it easier to read their feelings. Be expressive – nod to show you are actively listening or in agreement; smile to show approval. Sitting up straight will also signal to the group that you are involved and focused.

3. Beware of ‘zoning out’

An anonymous survey carried out by Blind last year revealed that 26 per cent of professionals switch off during online meetings. Twenty-seven per cent said they found themselves sidetracked and doing other tasks. Requiring everyone to keep their camera on and remain visible can minimise the temptation to multitask. When chairing, also remind participants to put mobile phones on silent and refrain from taking calls (after all, who would do that in an in-person meeting?), as well as closing their browser tabs so they don’t surf the web.

To keep the meeting dynamic and productive, encourage participation from everyone so it doesn’t become a one- or two-person show. However, avoid falling into the trap of mundanely asking everyone the same question; instead pose different queries to different people to maintain momentum and improve outcomes.

4. Share the responsibility

Chairing a meeting, delivering a presentation and trying to gauge audience interest is an almost impossible juggling act for one person. To ease the pressure, assign a team member to be a meeting facilitator. Their role should be to focus on engaging with participants, fielding questions, monitoring chat or taking notes. They can also be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the meeting, observing reactions and following up with any individuals who may be giving off signs they are uncertain or unhappy about an issue. The facilitator can also be responsible for managing interruptions and setting down protocol for how participants should alert the chair that they want to speak.

5. Create huddles

Have you discovered the facility for break-out meetings so you can hold smaller group discussions? These can be a powerful tool and encourage higher-level participation, increased collaboration and more focused input and ideas. They also allow for a wider range of issues to be covered in one meeting, thus making the most of everyone’s time and efforts.

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